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Human Relations Movement: How It Changed Management

Updated Feb 21, 2023

Table of Contents

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  • Human relations are a critical part of the workplace and have been guided largely by the basics of the human relations movement.
  • It is important for companies to apply the principles of the human relations movement to their management of employees.
  • There are a few key applications of the human relations movement that can be used to increase employee motivation and improve performance.
  • This article is for professionals and business owners interested in the history of human relations and how it impacted human resources practices.

The first management theory, Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theory, dates back to 1911. From there, many others were born, including Max Weber’s bureaucratic theory and Mary Parker Follett’s theory of organizational management. The countless theories ultimately spawned the human relations movement. It represents a crucial shift in management that encouraged a more personal type of management. Here are the basics of the movement and how it affected today’s style of management.

Who started the human relations movement?

The human relations movement was born from the Hawthorne studies, which Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger conducted from 1924 to 1932. Originally, the studies focused on how physical conditions, like lighting, affected workers’ productivity, but the studies found that one of the biggest factors influencing employees’ performance was whether they were being observed by others.

In other words, relationships between workers and management affect employee efficiency. If workers are being analyzed by their boss, they will be more motivated to do well – a phenomenon known as the Hawthorne effect.

Being part of a group and having a specific responsibility in that group also increased employees’ motivation. Workers want to feel that their personal goals and development goals align with their team’s overall goals and that their work is valuable.

Human relations vs. human resources

Some, if not most, employee management styles are predicated on the tenets of the human relations movement. All employee management styles require the use of human resources (HR), not to mention a department devoted to HR. This distinction raises the question: How do human relations and human resources differ?

Human relations encompass all interactions between employees and your company. That means not just how your employees interact with you (the business owner), but your work environment, all your other employees, your clients and anyone else they come into contact with in the course of their work. Human relations aims to ensure that your employees are as happy and productive – not the latter at the expense of the former – as possible.

Human resources somewhat disregards interpersonal interactions and treats your employees primarily as resources. An HR manager or outsourced HR firm may view your team as largely another cog in your machine while occasionally thinking about their wants and needs. This distinction stems in part from the fact that your HR team may be responsible for minimizing your risk, a task sometimes at odds with employee happiness.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway

Human relations concerns employee happiness, whereas human resources centers around your business.

Theory X and Theory Y

Management professor Douglas McGregor later created Theory X and Theory Y, two opposing perceptions of employee motivation. Here are the basics of the two theories, according to McGregor’s 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise:

Theory X: Negative outlook on workers

  1. Management is responsible for organizing company components in the interest of economic ends.
  2. Managers should direct workers’ efforts, motivate them, control their actions and modify their behavior to suit organizational needs.
  3. Managers must persuade, reward, punish and control workers to stop passiveness and resistance.

Theory Y: Positive outlook on workers

  1. Management is responsible for organizing company components in the interest of economic ends.
  2. Passiveness or resistance to organizational needs develop with experience in organizations.
  3. Motivation, potential for development, capacity for assuming responsibility and readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are naturally instilled in people.
  4. Above all, management should focus on creating a system where workers can achieve their own goals in line with company objectives.

Theory Y shared similarities with the human relations movement, noting that workers can be trusted and are naturally motivated and efficient. However, American psychologist Abraham Maslow had developed a theory of hierarchical needs, which McGregor referred to in his book, to indicate employee incentives to perform well. From lowest to highest in the hierarchy, those are physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, ego needs and self-fulfillment needs.

The two theories were important additions to management studies, and the human relations movement progressed by aligning individual needs with organizational needs.

What were the results of the human relations movement?

The human relations movement was a crucial event in management history and a major contribution to today’s leadership style. The behavioral sciences helped managers and theorists understand how to increase productivity by ditching the primary focus on organizations over their workers. Contemporary theories, like the contingency theory and the systems theory, focus more on the importance and effect of every individual in a company and how they can achieve their own goals while benefiting their organization.

How can human relations management improve employee performance?

Some aspects of human relations management can be applied to the modern workplace. There are a few positive actions businesses can take to improve employee performance.

  1. Treat work naturally. Try to encourage employees to treat work just as naturally as they would resting or playing. After all, this is one of the central points of human relationship management. They are exercising their skills in a professional environment. The more that employees can treat work as a natural state, the easier this will become.
  2. Share the big picture. Try to share the overall theme and big picture of the job with employees. Everyone wants to feel valued, and they want to know that their work is contributing to larger successes. When employees can see how they fit into the big picture, they will be more motivated.
  3. Give employees more power. Everyone wants to feel independent, and nobody wants to feel like someone is constantly looking over their shoulder. Therefore, push employees to innovate and make independent decisions when appropriate.
  4. Train employees and develop their skills accordingly. Employees who feel like the company is investing in them are more likely to perform better. As they grow, increase their freedom and responsibilities as well.
  5. Reward success. Recognize employees when they do well. Nobody wants to feel like their work is being ignored. Therefore, reward employees and success and ensure they know their hard work is being noticed. This will encourage others to work hard to achieve company goals as well.

How can I learn more about human relations management?

Just as employees look to management for guidance and assistance, managers must also strive for self-improvement. To do this, they can learn more about human relations by taking online courses or participating in in-person seminars.

Learning about new human relations tools and resources is also important, which will play a key role in rewarding employees who excel.

Max Freedman
Contributing Writer at
Max Freedman is a content writer who has written hundreds of articles about small business strategy and operations, with a focus on finance and HR topics. He's also published articles on payroll, small business funding, and content marketing. In addition to covering these business fundamentals, Max also writes about improving company culture, optimizing business social media pages, and choosing appropriate organizational structures for small businesses.
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